Friday, May 14, 2021

Happy are the hungry? Not yet

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Laboratory meat, artificial human breast milk, genetically modified pigs, a Cauliflower field cultivated by robots– if that’s the kind of sci-fi stuff you expect to read in a tech and food special, you won’t be disappointed. (And if you like real sci-fi take a look at this short story of Anjali Sachdeva.)

What makes these technologies so fascinating? Of course, it is claimed that they will improve food production – more humane, more reliable, more efficient. But beyond that, I think we’re both intrigued and repelled by the idea that something as familiar, essential, and ‘natural’ as food can be deconstructed and rebuilt from its cells, tweaked. like software or grown without ever touched by a human hand.

This reflects an evolution in Western food culture. If mid-20th century commercials advocated gaudy synthetic foods and TV shows told us that we would soon have all of our nutritional needs met by three pills a day, today we fantasize about ancient grains and tomatoes. ancient in unlimited abundance. But it also means that we prefer not to recognize the truth: there is already very little “natural” in the way we get most of our food.

The current food system bears little resemblance to that of a few generations ago. It is much more industrial and globalized, and in much of the world it produces many more crops per acre of land, thanks to new fertilizers, pesticides and seed varieties. most mundane processes, from the picking of the nuts to the selection of the potatoes, are technologically high-profile from top to bottom and are only becoming more and more so. We can take a piece of food out of any Color in the spectrum, where in the past we were limited to natural pigments. Industrial scale fermentation, long distance transportation, packaging and refrigeration have completely changed the foods available when and where; new advances like e-commerce, CRISPR and precision agriculture are expected to have equally important effects in the years to come. In our kitchens, yesterday’s gadgets for gourmets are becoming today’s essentials, raising the bar of the home kitchen ever higher.

And yet, for all its abundance and scope, the food system fails to feed hundreds of millions of people each year – and this number, shockingly, is increasing. Why?

The obvious answer is that the food system isn’t actually designed to feed people. It is designed to generate profit, and generally achieves this by maximizing returns and efficiency. This can lead to the production of a lot of food, but often in the wrong places at the wrong times.

So what would happen if we had adequate nutrition fundamental human right and rewrites the usual rules of capitalism to achieve? What if instead of doing maximum productivity the ultimate goal and using technology to stimulate it, we were aiming for universal balanced nutrition and sustainable agriculture, and seeking both new technological solutions and traditional farming practices to achieve it? We have already added minerals and vitamins to various foods to combat nutrient deficiencies which afflict billions of people every year; What if we continue?

The message in all of this is one that MIT Technology Review delivers time and time again: Technology can bring great benefits to humanity, but only if we choose to deploy it in pursuit of those benefits. It might be a tired old nostrum, but it’s never more true than with food – a technological product that every human being relies on almost every day.

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